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Joni Mitchell's voice as sweet as ever Print-ready version

by John Spitzer
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
July 11, 1983
Original article: PDF

Caught in the middle…
We’re middle class
We’re middle aged…
And my child’s a stranger…

Joni Mitchell intended these lines from “Chinese Cafe” on her latest album to express her estrangement from the world and from the generation of the ‘80s.

Yet at the Stanley Theater last night Joni Mitchell communicated effectively and successfully with a crowd of 2,500 people, the majority of them younger than she is, some of them probably her daughter’s age.

She didn’t succeed by pandering to the crowd with comfortable arrangements of greatest hits. Nor did she do it by offering a “mellow” antidote to the excesses of contemporary rock n’ roll. Mitchell communicated directly with her audience with a combination of stunning musicianship and personal integrity.

Mitchell’s voice was as strong, as sweet and as flexible as ever, and she moved it around with imaginative daring. She achieved her most concentrated rapport with the audience when she sang solo, accompanying herself on guitar, piano or Appalachian dulcimer. When she sang with her four-piece band her voice was caught up in the intricate harmonic and rhythmic interplay. Yet the voice always asserted its right to make itself heard, and the lyrics, or at least the message, never got lost in the instrumental texture.

Mitchell sang two kaleidoscopic sets ranging from “You Turn Me On, I’m a Radio,” to “Big Yellow Taxi” to “Wild Things Run Fast” and “Solid Love” from her latest album. The sequence of songs was designed to provide constant variety, with simple songs providing relief after difficult ones, rockers following ballads. Each song had enough space to etch itself clearly and distinctly into the consciousness of the crowd.

The band, for its part, was first rate. Vinnie Colaiuta played drums with a control of volume and timbre and an appreciation for cross-rhythmic possibilities. Mike Landau’s hot leads on guitar were appropriate and effective in the rocking numbers, but his playing was most beautiful in slow, pure commentaries on the vocal line, as in “Love,” Mitchell’s heterodox interpretation of 2 Corinthians 13. Russell Ferrante filled in harmonic gaps on piano and synthesizer. Larry Klein, Mitchell’s husband, pushed the band along with agile, open bass lines, and his fine solo in “God Must Be a Boogie Man” paid tribute to Charlie Mingus, the great jazz bassist and Mitchell’s one-time collaborator.

Mitchell’s arrangements were careful, almost fastidious. Instruments and voice had room to explore without crowding one another. No matter how thick the texture or how complex the rhythms, the songs remained accessible with all their subtleties. “Cotton Avenue,” with its vocal lyricism laid over a smoking beat, and “(You’re So Square) Baby I Don’t Care,” the Leiber and Stoller classic, were particularly imaginative in their re-thinking of basic rock n’ roll chording and rhythms.

Beyond these matters of musical technique, Mitchell projected an integrity and a matter-of-fact sincerity in her lyrics and her delivery that grew on the audience as the evening went on. “Sweet Bird,” with its wailing guitars, and “Refuge of the Road” with its discursive and allusive lyrics, both seemed to be carried along by the strength of the performer’s will. And in “Woodstock,” Mitchell’s third and final encore, she held the audience spellbound with chorus after chorus of unadorned rhythm guitar.

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Added to Library on August 1, 2023. (1801)


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